'Solar Freakin' Roadways' And The Wisdom Of Small Wins

by Stephen J. Meyer, Forbes

I’m going to tie together some remarkable stats about the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, the mythical “gasoline pill,” an obscure story about the EPA in the early 1970s, and Solar Freakin’ Roadways. The payoff will be an insight into how we should approach big, staggeringly complex challenges in our businesses and our lives. Here goes:

Years ago I got engrossed in a radio theater production about a guy who’d supposedly discovered a “gasoline pill” that turned water into gasoline. The plotline was driven by the old trope where powerful big guys (evil oilmen in this case) try to destroy a little guy.

I thought of that when a friend sent me a video about “Solar Freakin’ Roadways.” Same kind of story. Some little guys in Idaho say they’ve figured out how to turn roads into solar-energy-generators and power electric cars. So long global warming. So long dependence on foreign oil.

Solar Roadways, Inc. (SRI) has had an auspicious beginning. Since 2009 the federal government has given them $850,000 to build prototypes. They did a TED Talk. Idaho Senator Mike Crapo shot a 27-second endorsement of SRI. Star Trek’s George Takei tweeted about them to his eight million followers, helping the company raise $2 million on the crowd-funding site indiegogo.com in the past two months.

If you watch the video and get excited, be aware that skeptics abound. SRI is still in prototype and many suspect costs could be prohibitive. And just imagine what the lawyers will do after the first fatal accident on a solar roadway.

Truth is, nobody knows whether SRI will work. But let’s assume the idea is valid and these guys are crazy like Bell, the Wrights and the Lumieres were in the embryonic days of phones, flight and film. The question is: What’s the best way to implement a powerful idea whose implementation is staggeringly complex, in this instance because it requires replacing a transportation infrastructure that’s evolved for a century and that, by and large, works?

At one end of the continuum, you have what SRI is currently doing. They’re entrepreneurial holy rollers. They’re promising a heated highway to heaven and they’ve got their growing viral congregation weaving and swaying to the rhythms of their message. To be honest, I was ready to stand up and testify when the video mentioned solar freakin’ driveways you never need to shovel, which after the miserable winter we had in Philadelphia sounded like sweet salvation.

At the other end of the continuum you have a more modest, “small wins” approach. There’s a lot of evidence that when tackling a big, complex project like solar roadways, this might be a better way to go.

The term “small wins” was popularized by Karl Weick in a landmark 1984 article called “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems.” Weick lamented that when people try to solve big social problems such as crime, poverty or pollution, they often define the problems “in ways that overwhlem their ability to do anything about them.” try to do too much and get overwhelmed. “The quality of thought and action declines,” says Weick, and the cascading waves of complexity we encounter when we dive deeper into a big project often lead to “frustration” and “helplessness.” When you try to get everything done, you get nothing done.

Weick believes the solution is to recast a large problem as what he calls a “mere problem” and go after a “small win,” which he defined as “a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance.” SRI’s approach couldn’t be more different. The problems it proposes to solve are apocalyptic. The solution is panoramic, all encompassing.

My favorite story in the Weick article is the brilliant small-win strategy of William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator after Nixon created the agency in 1970. Air pollution was the big problem, so Ruckelshaus intentionally ignored it and went after water pollution. He found an obscure 80-year-old law and his first initiative in office was to invoke that law in five clean water lawsuits against major cities. He won them all, an outcome that management guru Tom Peters called “electrifying. Noticeable progress had been made quickly. It formed the beachhead for a long series of successes and distinguished EPA from most of its sister agencies.”

Inspired by Weick’s article, for decades people have been citing examples of how a small-wins approach works not just when addressing social problems but with military, business, sports and personal life challenges as well. Some examples:

  • The military: The 2007 “surge” in Iraq was a small-win strategy. General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency plan involved co-opting opposition leaders one by one. By the end of 2008 he had literally bought ceasefire deals with nearly 800 militias. Sectarian violence plummeted, an outcome that years of bombs and bullets had failed to achieve.
  • Fitting in at a new job: In Michael D. Watkins’s book “The First 90 Days,” he emphasizes the importance of a newly hired executive going for an “early win,” which is almost by definition a small one. I once worked for a guy who did the opposite. From day one he set out to change the entire culture of a large company. The culture desperately needed to change, and he had the full-throated support of the CEO. But organizational antibodies attacked, undermining everything he did. He was expelled like a virus...
Read the article: Meyer, S.J. (2014). 'Solar Freakin' Roadways' And The Wisdom Of Small Wins. Forbes.

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